JUST A GERMAN SHOESHINE GIRL
For the duration of the 2011 “Art in Odd Places Festival” in New York City, I worked as a shoe-shine girl dressed in traditional German (Bavarian) garb along 14th street in Lower Manhattan. I carried a wooden shoe-shine box (originally used by an African American shoe-shine boy who worked in New York City in the early 20th century) with rags, cloths, brushes, and various shoe-shine polishes. I also carried a milk crate for customers to sit on while getting their shoes shined. A sandwich board was placed to attract participants: “Step up to our preferred shoe shine. Drop off or while you wait.” Public shoe-shining has a quality that is at once provocative, voyeuristic, and ritualistic. As such, it is an act laden with cultural references to subservience and superiority, otherness, and racism. Being of German origin and moving to the US voluntarily, I saw this as an opportunity to reflect upon a kind of immigrant experience that I was not part of. A person of underprivileged background trying to immigrate to a country such as the US still (for the most part) works in service to the personal needs of their economic superiors. 14th Street was and is a border between neighborhoods and cultures in New York City. It is a nexus and social gathering place of many kinds of people. It was a perfect place for my project since my customers were men and women of various ethnic backgrounds: fruit street vendors, security workers, students, a gallery director, and one feminist, among others. I experienced a variety of responses, ranging from laughter to confusion, even animosity.